Thursday, September 08, 2005


Peak Age for Ultimate?

[Apologies for lack of posts while (still) on vacation. This will be brief.]

I have always felt instinctively that 28 was the optimal age for ultimate. Somehow, this age represents for me a time when muscles are well developed, age deterioration is minimal, stamina is good, the mind has lost the knowitallness of adolescence, curmudgeonliness has not set in, yet a considerable wealth of experience has been amassed -- but not so much that ossification of the mind has begun. In my personal experience and observation, 28 represents all these things. Also, I have always just liked this number, since it is "perfect" (equal to the sum of its divisors: 28 = 1 + 2 + 4 + 7 + 14).

Clearly I am swayed by my own prejudices. In a running event, e.g., you can pretty much statistically prove that some certain age is optimal, but this is harder in a team sport. I wonder if people generally concur with my own assessment or if feelings differ greatly?

Aw shit, I guess it's all downhill from here.

I think that that's generally true for those who start playing at a young age, but for those of us who didn't start playing ultimate until the middle of college (or later), I would think that improvement due to refinment of skill still outpaces physical deterioration for a few more years.

Moreover, I'd guess that for the well trained ameteur athlete, the usual peak of motor skills is after 28. What really starts to decline at that age is the ability to recover from the wear and tear of training/practice (and injuries).
At least for baseball there have been some statistical explorations of peak age, mostly by Bill James. He came up with about 27 - here's one link talking about it.

For ultimate I don't know - the average starting age is MUCH later than baseball, but the amount of pure running vs the hand-eye coordination of hitting is quite a bit different.

At least others are thinking about it though.
The baseball analysis is interesting. One could approach individual and quantifiable ultimate skills similarly (goals thrown/caught, blocks) -- that is, if we had reliable statistics. However, a quantitative analysis of "overall value" is always a gray area. You can try to cook up some combination of statistics to measure total worth to a team, but this can also be done arbitrary and nonsensically. (This debate is raging in baseball, as far as I understand: the quants versus the feelers.) I would be happy to hear what people's gut feelings are. Maybe 28 is too late in today's game, where people start earlier. Perhaps 26 is the new 28?
I'd say it would be 28 or 29, assuming the player started to play seriously while in college. I would expect this to decrease to about 26 when a lot more high schools and middle schools have programs.

I don't remember very many 30 year olds playing 15 years ago. I wonder whether the peak age has changed over time.
Are we taking positions into consideration?

Baseball has the DH, for example.

Ultimate has the O team handler, for example.

I would wager that there are far fewer 35+ downfield cutters than there are handlers. (With obvious exceptions.)

More interestingly, do players who are older and still playing naturally change positions as their skills change or do players who start out as handlers tend to keep playing longer than cutters because they realize how little energy really needs to be expended to play?
Bill James theorized that young players with "old person skills" (in baseball, power and a good eye; in ultimate, good throws) tend to age worse than players with "young person skills" (mostly speed). If a fast player loses a step, he's still faster than most and will pick up other skills as he ages, but if a slow player loses a step, he just can't get open and is a liability on defense.

I feel that my peak was probably either in 1995 (age 30) or 1998 (age 33). 1995 was my best Nationals, but 1998 was my best year overall, until I nearly broke my thumb on a slightly gratuitous play on Day 1 of Nationals. 1993 was also going really well until I tweaked a hamstring also on a slightly gratuitious action (I was beating Fat Gary in a challenge sprint and decided to lay out to emphasize the victory) and got thrown off my training and timing.
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